I spent a majority of the past summer working with high school students. They had volunteered to spend their mornings setting up equipment for my wife’s summer camp, and I had been told volunteered to lead them in this mission. During our down time, the students and myself would take pictures of the camp or of one another with our phones and share the images on Instagram or Facebook.
One day, I overheard a student tell his friend that he needed to delete a recent picture because “it only had, like, thirty likes.” It seemed to me that thirty was a respectable number of people showing interest in a filtered image of a dodge ball game. The student disagreed and decided to teach me a lesson in social media metrics. He explained,
“I have over 600 followers on Instagram and Facebook. When only thirty of them like what I post, it tells me that it was not that interesting to most of them. If I don’t post things people like, I lose followers.
The number of “likes” (30) was being weighed against the number of followers (600+) and found wanting. At this point, I was curious to know how someone compiled a network of 600+ followers at the age of sixteen. When I asked him, the student shared with me his secret. To paraphrase him,
“It’s easy. Just send out as many invitations to connect as you can. It does not matter who you ask, just try to grow your number of connections. After a while you need to go back through your list of friends and followers and ‘disconnect’ or ‘un-follow’ them. That way, they are your followers, but you are not following them anymore. It’s not about who is following you. It’s about how many people are following you. And that number, ideally, is greater than the number of people you follow.” [emphasis mine]
Despite the democratic nature of the Internet, this student’s short lesson reveals the propensity towards hierarchy. In this hierarchy, “how many” is more important than “who.” Just as the students in my Fourth Grade class have established a pecking order on the playground, so too, all of us who use social media, or are active online, have a sense of our place in the online social-order. And we do so by looking at the numbers.
The obsession with metrics pervades our digital age, perhaps because we’ve never had so many devices capable of tracking the minutiae of life. Yet the seduction of statistics is as old as King David’s census in the Old Testament.
Quantified Life in the United States of Metrics*
The students’ unstated but apparent belief that social media is all about the numbers is a fair assessment of an age where we gravitated towards mechanisms that can quantify our lifestyle. According to a recent article in The New York Times, sixty-nine percent of Americans use digital devices to track numbers pertaining to weight loss, step counts, caloric intake, exercise, blood pressure, and sleep patterns. The demand for health and wellness metrics fuels a $330 million enterprise in fitness devices.
There is a similar fascination with numbers among the 30+ million people involved in Fantasy Sports teams. These couch-side competitions, which are designed to pit numbers against numbers, are ramped up as digital sensors increase the data flow from the field of play to our hand-held screens. Did you know that the NFL is actually embedding sensors into the uniforms of its athletes in order to track their speed and chart their mileage per game? These numbers are at the heart of a fantasy sports industry that generates over $4 billion a year!
In past issues I have alluded to movements known as the Internet of Things, Big Data, and the Quantified Self that promote wearable technology and embedding gadgets into everyday objects. Such devices are meant to become the fabric (literally..) of a society that tracks “pedestrian traffic, air quality, energy consumption…and even the physical activity of residence.” While communities can use this data to make decisions efficiently, there is the underlying hope that we will expand “self-knowledge through numbers.”
Bruce Feiler of The New York Times calls this the United States of Metrics, arguing,
“We are awash in numbers. Data is everywhere. Old-fashioned things like words are in retreat; numbers are on the rise. Unquantifiable arenas like history, literature, religion, and the arts are receding from public life, replaced by technology, statistics, science and math. Even the most elemental form of communication, the story, is being pushed aside by the list.”
No where is this truth more evident than in the nebulous world of social media, which Alan Jacobs describes as a “world of counting.”
Social Media Metrics: Building your Digital Klout
If social media is a world of counting, Bruce Feiler is correct to call Facebook its king, because its
subjects users are able to see “the number of friends, the number of likes on each status report, the number of comments on each report and the number of likes on each comment.” When you return to the social network after posting content you are notified of these numbers with shiny pop ups that elicit a near-Pavlovian response. As the high school student already discovered, these numbers are the quantification of your popularity.
If you are not sure what clout you possess online, you can join over 500 million people on Klout, a web service that uses social media analytics to assess your online influence. Klout taps into your Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, Foursquare, and Instagram data to assess the size of your network and how others interact with your content. This data is processed by Klout algorithms and users are given a number between 1 and 100. This is your Klout Score, and the higher the number, the higher the degree of influence you possess.
In researching for this article, I signed up to Klout only to find out that my score was an ego-shattering 14. Thankfully, there are strategies for increasing this score. Jeff Haden, writing for Inc. Magazine, offers the following advice to users hoping to grow their “social media footprint.” First, create content that others share. Tweets on Twitter should be 75 to 80 characters long because studies show that is the optimal size of a retweeted message.
Second, use names or handles (e.g. @sikkemad) as much as possible when sharing content because it increases the chance that your name will be used back. The more your name is used, the higher chance you have of being followed by someone in a different network.
And third, contribute to discussions and post comments to other people’s work. Again this increases the likelihood of having people comment on your work. With a more refined language, Haden told me what the high school student taught me: it’s all about the numbers.
Please don’t get me wrong. It is not wrong to want to increase the number of people that follow you, and to maximize your influence. Similarly, Haden’s advice is not necessarily wrong, or “bad.” In some instances where he stresses the importance of producing quality content and offering authentic commentary for others, it appears as though a Golden Rule for social media emerges: “Tweet unto others as you would have them tweet unto you.”
But perhaps his advice is too narrow, and perhaps in our drive to increase numbers we compromise authenticity. As Alan Jacobs argues,
“Once you start conceiving of your online social world as countable, it’s hard, as many, many people have noted, not to make decisions based on what will boost those numbers.”
And in these decisions (i.e. metric-boosting strategies) we reduce human relationships to and equate our self-worth with some arbitrary “number of connections.” Meanwhile, we mask self-promotion under the guise of “active engagement with others.” This is the blinding seduction of statistics and as I mentioned at the outset, even King David, was not immune to its power.
King David: Seduced by Statistics
One of the most infamous sins of King David was his numbering of Israel. Knowing the story of David and his meteoric rise from shepherd boy to king of Israel, my guess is that King David’s Klout score would be in the ballpark of 90. In I Chronicles 21: 1-2 (ESV) we read that King David was trying to calculate his score with a census:
Then Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel.
So David said to Joab and the commanders of the army, “Go, number Israel, from Beersheba to Dan, and bring me a report, that I may know their number.”**
It is Satan who incites David to number Israel. Joab, the commander of David’s army, tries to convince him not to number the people, but David goes through with it anyway. Why? One commentator, in way of explaining the king’s motives, writes,
David was enthroned over a numerous nation and his census is likely an indication that he was quite proud of his accomplishment and wanted that accomplishment recorded for history and/or his contemporaries: “David, King of multitudes!”
When David is confronted and punished for this census, it becomes clear that, like the story of Bathsheba, this is an account of David as a fallen man and not as a man after God’s own heart. Here is a man who has given in to temptation. Not the temptation of a woman this time, but the temptation of wrapping his power, his authority, and his identity, up in numbers.
The nature of sin is its incomprehension of the truth. And by giving in to this temptation, David becomes blind to the truth of his own life. He had forgotten that he had no followers when he killed Goliath. He did so because of his faith in the One whom he followed. His identity was solely wrapped up in that One, and not in himself or the numbers of people “liking” his accomplishments, to use 21st century language.
Alan Jacobs points out that an obsession with numbers points to what the poet W. H. Auden referred to as our “greatest spiritual danger.” In his essay, “The Infernal Science,” he writes:
One of our greatest spiritual dangers is our fancy that the Evil One takes a personal interest in our perdition. He doesn’t care a button about my soul, any more than Don Giovanni cared a button about Donna Elvira’s body. I am his “one-thousand-and-third-in-Spain.”
One can conceive of Heaven having a Telephone Directory, but it would have to be gigantic, for it would include the Proper name and address of every electron in the Universe. But Hell could not have one, for in Hell, as in prison and the army, its inhabitants are identified not by name but by number. They do not have numbers, they are numbers.
Returning to our social networks this week, let’s remember that our followers are infinitely more than numbers.